Beautiful but Risky

By: Richard G Turner Jr

Richard G Turner Jr is the editor emeritus of Pacific Horticulture. After receiving degrees in architecture and landscape architecture from…

More From This Author

“The most dangerous places are often the most attractive places to live.” So spoke Stephen Orr, garden editor of House & Garden magazine, in his opening remarks at the recent Fresh Design seminar, cosponsored by the Garden Conservancy and Pacific Horticulture. He made specific reference to San Francisco and New Orleans, two of the most appealing cities on the continent. Both have suffered from the most catastrophic natural disasters the country has known: San Francisco just observed the 100th anniversary of the big quake of 1906; New Orleans is still recovering from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina—and will likely be doing so for years to come.

Stephen could have been referring to many places here in the West, where torrential winter rains produce massive flooding and landslides, fires burn fiercely on the urban fringe, and earthquakes disrupt cities and lives. And yet, who among us gardeners, given the option, would chose to live elsewhere—would give up this favored gardening climate for the heat and humidity, ice and snow, or intense aridity of other parts of the country? I thought of Stephen’s comments as I absorbed the news of a tragedy for friends in the hills above Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco. After endless days of unusual spring rain, a hillside gave way above their home, taking Walt’s life and leaving Lisa without home or husband. Walt Guthrie was one of the most highly regarded landscape architects in the Bay Area; Lisa is both a talented landscape architect and an inspired watercolorist. They knew the risk of living at the base of their narrow canyon, but felt it was worth it for the magnificent view over southern Marin County and the bay. Walt loved gardening and, for more than four decades, carefully and conscientiously managed their hillside in hopes of preventing the kind of earth movement that ultimately took his life.

The unusual rains in Northern California are just one recent example of the probable impacts of global warming—now acknowledged by even the most cautious in the scientific community as both real and present. In the past eighteen months, we’ve seen uncommon drought in the Pacific Northwest, followed by relentless rains; extensive wildfires in San Diego County and in the southern plains states; massive hurricanes in the Southeast and in Australia; bizarre snowfalls alternating with summer-like temperatures in the Northeast; record-breaking floods in New England, Europe, and elsewhere. Glaciers and icepacks have been shrinking for years, and now word comes that ocean temperatures are rising measurably.

What does this have to do with gardening on the West Coast? While earthquakes remain beyond our ability to control, or even predict, we all have the power to slow global warming and reduce its impact on the planet, even if only slightly.

Gardeners can help reduce the use of fossil fuels by eliminating gas-powered equipment for mowing and trimming lawns, shearing hedges, and pruning trees. We can avoid the use of chemical fertilizers, decreasing the quantity of pollutants released during their manufacture, and slowing plant growth to a more natural pace, thereby reducing the need to mow, shear, and trim. We can plant more trees, in our gardens and in our cities; scientists have long recognized the ability of trees to clean the air of harmful pollutants. Most importantly, we can give serious thought to how and when and in what manner we move about to accomplish our daily tasks; walking, biking, and riding public transit are far healthier—and less damaging— alternatives to the private, single-passenger automobile.

We can’t recover the human losses from landslides, floods, and fires. But perhaps there is still time for us to work together to allay some of these natural disasters that make the West such a potentially dangerous, albeit attractive, place to live.

What have you done today to reduce global warming?

RGT